Mennonite Debates about Church Architecture in Europe and America: Questions of History and Theology

Article excerpt

Abstract: Mennonite church buildings (or meetinghouses) are traditionally simple and plain. One can find numerous examples of the Mennonite plain architectural style in many countries. Finding the explicit, written rationale for Mennonite architecture, however, is not so easy. Here and there, Mennonites debated whether there is a distinctive Mennonite church architecture. Some argued that the plain style was essential to the Mennonite faith; others believed that innovation and a touch of elegance was proper. As they built new buildings or adapted second-hand buildings, church members debated the issues on theological and historical grounds. By looking at Dutch Mennonite and English Puritan examples from Amsterdam, and American Mennonite examples from North Dakota and Kansas, one can begin to fit Mennonite architecture into the larger picture of Protestant church architecture.

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Mennonites at Casselton, North Dakota faced a church dilemma in 1951 when they had the opportunity to purchase a fine, used church building in the town. It was well-constructed, well-designed and available at a good price. The problem? It was a Gothic-style Episcopal church with stained glass windows, central altar and cross, organ, kneelers, double pulpits, bell and bell tower. St. Stephen's Church of 1886 was a landmark of some historical and artistic distinction, constructed by architect George Hancock according to a design of Cass Gilbert, a prominent American architect (Fig. 1). Built in territorial days, it was the donation of General William Cass, pioneer railroad builder and businessman. By mid-twentieth century the Episcopal congregation had disbanded and the vacant church was for sale. Obviously, the building presented a great opportunity for the Mennonites, but the Episcopalian church was such a drastic change from the traditional, simple Mennonite house of worship. What would other Mennonites say about such "high church" affectations? After some discussion and debate, the Casselton Mennonite congregation bought the building and moved in. (1) The Mennonites absorbed the structure with amazingly few changes, retaining the organ, altar, cross, double pulpits and stained glass. (2)

The splendid stained-glass windows caused a few Mennonite hearts to flutter--should they be removed? One visiting church dignitary slipped into his prayers a warning about ostentatious windows, but by then the people had come to love them and they pretended not to hear. (3) Pastor A. J. Stoll on various occasions preached sermons to help the congregation interpret and appreciate the symbolic beauty of the building and its windows. As he explained it, these symbols (such as the stained-glass cross, dove, sheaves of grain, crown and stars, grapes and the bleeding pelican) were not strictly Episcopalian or Mennonite but belonged to the Christian church as a whole. Moreover, in accepting this building they had accepted trusteeship of "probably the most cherished building in town. It could be the most valuable church." (4) Stoll's leadership helped the congregation to see how Mennonites belonged to the larger Christian movement. To this day, the Casselton Mennonite Church worships with satisfaction in its Mennonite-Episcopalian temple. The building is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, thus joining a very select group of Mennonite churches to be accorded this honor.

The Casselton discussions and sermons highlighted long standing issues of Mennonite architecture. Is there such a thing as one appropriate and approved Mennonite architecture? Does the shape and form of the worship structure mold the religious life within? Will an Episcopalian-designed building (or in other cases, a Methodist- or Lutheran-designed building) make the worshipping Mennonite less attuned to Mennonite values? It would be very valuable to have a study that surveys Mennonite congregations which have acquired buildings from outside denominations. …

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